Thursday, November 15, 2018
Paving the Way - Harriot Kezia Hunt (1805-1875) Early Female Medical Practitioner & Staunch Civil Rights Reformer
Today, the ranks of our medical professionals are growing. Men & women now serve as nurse practitioners & physician assistants maintaining an important place in our present-day healthcare system. Both hold advanced academic certification, & usually provide direct patient care under the auspices of a physician. In recent years, professionals in both roles have been gaining a greater level of independence as a growing number of states relax requirements for physician collaboration & oversight. This comes as a direct response to today's growing physician shortage & a need for cost containment at a time when there are more demands being placed on the US healthcare system than ever before. Today Nurse practitioners usually follow a patient-centered model, while physician assistants adhere to a science/disease-centered model. In simplest terms:
The nursing model usually looks more holistically at patients & their outcomes, giving attention to a patient’s mental & emotional needs as much as their physical problems.
The medical/science model usually places a greater emphasis on disease pathology, approaching patient care by looking primarily at the anatomy & physiological systems that comprise the human body.
Of course, women had helped other women during labor & delivery as mid-wives for centuries before 19C America. Harriot Kezia Hunt was one of the nation's early woman to practice a more generalized medicine professionally. Though she did not have a medical degree, she achieved considerable success by applying holistic principles of good nutrition & exercise. In the 1850s, she became involved in the burgeoning women’s rights movement & fought to open the medical profession to women.
Harriot Kezia Hunt was born in Boston, Massachusetts on November 9, 1805, the daughter of Jacob & Kezia Wentworth Hunt. The Hunts were deeply involved in Boston’s liberal religious community & reform culture; & they educated their 2 daughters at home. Her father died in 1827, when Harriot was 22, & she & her sister Sarah opened a school in their parents’ home in order to support themselves.
In the early 1830s, Harriot’s sister Sarah became gravely ill. Mainstream Boston physicians were unable to diagnose or cure her ailment, & harsh traditional treatments – strong chemicals, laxatives & bloodletting – only made Sarah weaker. Desperate to save her sister’s life, Harriot Hunt began scouring medical books for alternative ways to cure Sarah’s illness.
By the 1830s, Boston was a hotbed of medical innovation as medicine was beginning to be based on science. For centuries women had administered home remedies to their sick relatives, but doctors who had graduated from medical training programs began to replace these female healers. It would take decades for women to gain access to medical schools.
Boston was home to many alternative medical practitioners who sought to cure patients without poisonous drugs & strong interventions. Cures were advertised in local newspapers & directories. Two of those were Elizabeth Mott & her husband Richard Dixon Mott, who immigrated from England in 1832, & opened a joint practice in Boston, with Mrs. Mott treating women & children & her husband seeing male patients. In her early advertisements, Mrs. Mott emphasized her “Vegetable Remedies.”
In June 1833, Harriot Hunt consulted Elizabeth & Richard Mott, both so-called physicians of somewhat questionable reputation, on behalf of her sister Sarah. Harriet recalled the prejudice they suffered ’employing a quack’ but also reported how tired she was of consulting orthodox doctors & “how useless it would be to die because of medical etiquette.”
The Motts soon diagnosed Sarah with consumption (tuberculosis) & eventually cured her after a severe 3-year illness. In her 1856 memoirs, Glances & Glimpses, Harriot Hunt recalled that this experience, her “first thought of woman as a physician,” inspired her to study medicine. As the Motts’ reputation quickly spread Elizabeth began to market herself as a “Female Physician.”
In 1834, Elizabeth Mott published The Ladies’ Medical Oracle, or Mrs. Mott’s Advice to Young Females, Wives & Mothers. The book explained “her system of European vegetable medicine for the cure of diseases,” & advertised her preparations, ointments, syrups & powders designed to cure everything from asthma to teething to tumors. Mrs. Mott marketed both her book & her medicines from her consulting room in Historic New England’s Otis House.
For most of her career, Mott limited her practice to women & children, arguing that “ladies ought to have their own sex attend to them” because they could talk more openly with female doctors without violating standards of morality & modesty. Describing herself as a “female professor of medical knowledge,” she hoped to simplify medicine so that every patient could become “her own physician.”
Her system of medicine, based on “one hundred preparations principally of herbs, roots, flowers, vegetable & essential oils, gums, balsams & simples, each of which I will take with my patients, & may be given with safety to the nursing babe, or the most aged,” placed her firmly in the world of alternative medicine, or as it was disparagingly labeled, ‘quackery.’
Hunt’s experience in caring for her sister led her to seek a medical career. At the time, however, there were no colleges or medical schools for women. In 1833, Hunt & her sister both entered the home of Richard & Elizabeth Mott to study medicine privately. Harriot, Sarah & their mother all moved into the 3rd floor of the Otis House.
A few months later, Richard Mott patented his Champoo Vapour Bath & installed one on the second floor of the house. Medicated baths were popular treatments in Europe & Asia at the time. Dr. Mott’s version placed the patient in an India rubber tent on a platform through which steam, infused with herbs, emerged to “cover the surface of the body, when the pores are in a proper state to receive them…” This treatment would be followed by a Champoo (massage) of the appropriate parts of the body.
Early in 1834, as their practice continued to grow, the Motts offered Harriot Hunt a position in their business room. In the summer of 1834, the Motts advertised their house as an establishment where “ladies who labor under diseases or infirmities” would “receive, at a minute’s notice, medical assistance by night & day.” In June 1835, Elizabeth Mott “unexpectedly” left for Europe, assuring her clients that they would continue to be attended by the Hunt sisters, in whom “she had the utmost confidence.”
The Hunt family moved out of the Otis House after Elizabeth’s departure, but they continued to see patients there. Richard Mott became ill in September of 1835. The Hunts cared for Mott in his final days & purchased his patent from him. Hunt & her sister opened their own medical practice, which consisted largely of general hygiene & Champoo Baths.
The Hunts treated many women suffering from neurasthenia, a psychological disorder characterized by chronic fatigue & weakness, & began to stress the importance of mental hygiene (maintaining mental health & preventing mental disorders through education & early treatment). “We were frequently surprised,” Hunt later wrote, “by the successful termination of many of our cases through prescriptions for mental states.”
When Elizabeth Mott returned several months later, she joined the Hunts. As announced in the local papers, “Mrs. Mott & Misses Hunt, Female Physicians, continue to attend to all diseases incident to the Female Frame…. The Patent Medicated Champoo Baths will be administered to ladies at any hour of the day.” Mott’s self-aggrandizing style placed her, as Hunt noted, “on the list of quacks.”
Mott was also a pioneer, & Harriot Hunt adopted Mott’s core beliefs: 1) medicines should be natural, 2) doctors must consult with & listen to their patients, & 3) women were likely to discuss symptoms more freely with female doctors. However, Hunt soon began to question the scientific basis of some of Mott’s medical practices, & after a year, Mott departed for New York.
The Hunts’ approach to medical care – with patience, sympathy & quiet confidence – did much to relax tensions in their patients & seem to have been a major source of their success. After Sarah left the practice to get married in 1840, Harriot narrowed her focus on physiologically-based treatments, & “continued an ever-widening practice in Boston & the vicinity that in time brought her an independent fortune.”
At a time when most physicians offered harsh therapies that could be debilitating, if not fatal, Harriot Hunt treated many of her patients’ illnesses by simply prescribing a healthy diet, ample exercise, regular bathing, good hygiene & rest, while also teaching them physiology so that they would not harm themselves through ignorance.
In 1843, she formed the Ladies’ Physiological Society in Boston to provide a forum in which she could promote her views on healthy living. At the meetings, often held in her home, she talked to large groups of women. She began to lecture frequently on physiology & hygiene, experienced a remarkable degree of success & obtained a devoted following.
In 1847, Hunt applied for permission to attend lectures at the Harvard Medical School in an unofficial capacity, but the trustees denied her request. Three years later, after Elizabeth Blackwell had achieved fame by becoming the 1st woman to receive a medical degree, Hunt applied once again to the Harvard Medical School.
This time the trustees were more open to the idea, & voted 5 to 2 to allow her to attend lectures. However, two African American men had been recently admitted to the medical school, & Hunt was caught up in the general sense of outrage from the white male students: 2 blacks & now a woman! She was asked to withdraw her application; she complied.
Hunt gained a certain notoriety by being refused admittance to the Harvard Medical School twice. She later wrote about her attempt to enroll at Harvard: "When civilization is further advanced, & the great doctrine of human rights is acknowledged, this act will be recalled & wondering eyes will stare, & wondering ears will be opened, at the semi-barbarism of the middle of the nineteenth century."
Harriot Hunt helped establish several women’s groups dedicated to providing financial & moral support to women medical students, & strove throughout her life to change the rigid face of orthodox medicine, including its prejudices against women & its dangerous therapeutic methods. By her example as well as by her efforts on behalf of her gender, she helped prepare the way for the first generation of women medical school graduates of the 1850s & 1860s.
Her pioneering efforts to open the medical profession to women in America did not go unnoticed. She was granted an honorary degree from the Female Medical College of Philadelphia in 1853. Her medical career is documented in her autobiography, Glances & Glimpses; Or, Fifty Years’ Social, Including Twenty Years’ Professional Life (1856).
Harriot Kezia Hunt also followed her parents in the path of reform in other areas besides medicine, particularly the abolition of slavery & women’s rights. In 1850 she attended a women’s rights convention in Massachusetts & quickly adopted that movement’s views advocating the removal of the legal & political disabilities of women.
In May 1850, at the conclusion of the annual Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Boston, an announcement was made for those interested to stay behind & help plan for a national women’s rights convention. Two men & 9 women took part in the discussion, including, Paulina Wright Davis, Abby Kelley, Lucy Stone & Harriot Hunt. Worcester, Massachusetts was determined as the convention site, if enough signatures could be gathered to warrant further action.
At the convention on October 23–24, 1850, some 900 people showed up for the 1st session, men forming the majority, with several newspapers reporting over 1,000 attendees by the afternoon of the first day, & more turned away outside. A variety of speakers took the platform to address the crowd, including William Lloyd Garrison, Ernestine Rose, Wendell Phillips, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Harriot Hunt & Frederick Douglass.
A 2nd national convention was held October 15–16, 1851, which drew a larger audience than the first. Hunt, Elizabeth Oakes Smith & Antoinette Brown Blackwell gave speeches, while a letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton was read. Lucretia Mott served as an officer of the meeting. Committees appointed the previous year reported on women’s access to paid labor, education, political rights & social equality.
Both the necessity for female doctors & her commitment to abolition & women’s rights motivated Hunt’s nationwide lecture tours, & by the mid-1850s she was known outside of Massachusetts as one of the ardent supporters of the feminist movement. The New England Women’s Club with Julia Ward Howe as president was held at Hunt’s home.
She subsequently helped found a school of design in Boston to widen women’s opportunities for employment & petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for equal educational rights for women. For 2 decades, beginning in 1852, she accompanied her annual tax payment to the Boston authorities with a protest against taxing the property of one not permitted to vote.
Harriot Kezia Hunt continued both her medical practice & her reform activities until her death on January 2, 1875.
Harriot Kezia Hunt wrote in her autobiography: "Talk of politeness when humanity is perishing – of the sacred sphere of woman when thousands of my sisters are prostitutes – how many from necessity, God only knows. I have not the least patience with the exquisite dandy & the fashionable flirt attempting to define proprieties…. Neither have I patience with a set of croakers who regret the present state of things; but how can it be helped? say they with a yawn. Look at your widowed sister struggling to preserve a home – the hectic [look] on that cheek produced by overtasking her physical strength tells you death will soon set his seal upon her. Look at that married woman – sleepless nights & toilsome days cloud her brow & irritate her temper…."
For more of Harriot Hunt's story, see Smithsonian.com